Poppies in July – Sylvia Plath “Poppies in July” is a short poem written in free verse. Its fifteen lines are divided into eight stanzas. The first seven stanzas are couplets, and the eighth consists of a single line. The title presents an image of natural life at its most intense—at the height of summer. It evokes a pastoral landscape and suggests happiness, if not joy or passion. The title is ironic, however, because the poem is not a hymn to nature but a hallucinatory projection of the landscape of the speaker’s mind and emotions.
Sylvia Plath begins the poem innocently, even playfully, as the speaker addresses the poppies, calling them “little poppies. ” The tone changes immediately, however, as the poppies become “little hell flames,” and the speaker asks if they do no harm. She can see them flickering, but when she puts her hands into the imagined flames, “nothing burns. ” She feels exhausted from watching the poppies, but she imagines that their “wrinkly and clear red” petals are like “the skin of a mouth. ” This introduces an erotic element into the poem, but it is followed by an image of violence—“A mouth just bloodied. Immediately, another change occurs, as the poppies become “little bloody skirts. ” This shocking image marks the exact center of the poem. Aside from the obvious implications of bloody skirts, another meaning is suggested by the fact that “skirt” is a slang term for a woman, and in England, where Plath was living, “bloody” is a curse, a profanity. Combined with the word “marry,” which occurs later in the poem, these details suggest that the speaker is responding to her husband’s marital infidelity.
In anger, she has bloodied his mouth, and her invocation of “hell flames” indicates that she would like to see the adulterers punished for their sin against her. The speaker feels like she is in hell. As thoughts of the situation surface in her consciousness, she turns away from images based on the color, shape, and texture of the poppy, to images based on its smell and the drugs that are extracted from it. The poppies smell like “fumes” to her. In a derangement of her senses, she confuses smell with touch and says she cannot touch them, as she could not touch the earlier “flames. She asks the poppies where their opiates are and thinks of “nauseous capsules. ” She thinks she could achieve relief if she could “bleed, or sleep,” but an emotional wound does not bleed, and her state of mind will not let her sleep. An alternative is to “marry a hurt like that,” but she cannot accept or tolerate the situation. She wants the “liquors” of the poppy to “seep” to her in what she calls “this glass capsule. ” She feels separated from reality; this is why she cannot touch anything.
She wants the liquors to be “colorless,” with everything suggested by the color of poppies to be refined away. Forms and Devices The couplet form traditionally exemplifies order, balance, harmony, and reason. Each line exhibits the same grammatical and metrical structures. Each couplet forms a complete unit of meaning, and often the lines rhyme. Plath draws on this tradition by writing the poem in couplets, but she violates the form by writing free-verse lines. Her couplets represent the speaker’s effort to control her thoughts and feelings, which are expressed in the lines of free verse.
The length, rhythm, and grammar of these lines vary with the ebb and flow of the speaker’s emotions. For example, the longest line in the poem evokes the image—“the skin of a mouth”—which precipitates the speaker’s anger in the next couplet, which in turn refers to the bloodied mouth and bloody skirts. This is the shortest couplet in the poem, each line having only five syllables. It concentrates and releases the speaker’s anger, like the blow of a fist. The free-verse couplets also facilitate the presentation of the images of the poem.
These follow one another according to the speaker’s associational process in a logic of emotion, rather than the couplet’s usual logic of reason. The images advance leap by leap, each suggesting the next by a shared characteristic, such as color, shape, or texture, in a series that is increasingly disturbing. Plath transforms the images, one into another, in a manner characteristic of motion pictures, in which one image dissolves as another forms to take its place. The poppies fade into flames; the petals dissolve and the skin of a mouth replaces them.
This technique contributes to the hallucinatory quality of the poem. The poem exhibits instances of parallel grammatical and metrical structures, but the parallels do not usually appear together. The word “little” prefaces the images of poppies and flames in the first line, then is repeated in the eighth line in a phrase which is parallel to the first two—“little bloody skirts. ” When the three images prefaced by the word “little” are considered together, they form a complex of associations—poppies, flames, skirts—suggesting sexual passion. The first mage of a mouth is in the sixth line and the second is in the eighth line, but the third does not occur until the twelfth line, where the speaker thinks she could achieve relief if her mouth could “marry a hurt like that. ” The hurt refers back to the mouth bloodied in the seventh stanza. Likewise, the phrase “nauseous capsule” finds its parallel in “this glass capsule. ” Many other examples of parallelism occur in the poem. It is as if a poem written in traditional couplets has exploded, and the speaker is trying to put the parts back together.
This effectively expresses what has happened to the speaker’s marriage. A couplet is a pair of lines. The one-line stanza that ends the poem may signify the separation of the speaker from her marital partner, perhaps through loss of consciousness or even death. Themes and Meanings The term “Konfessional” has been applied to the poetry of Sylvia Plath. It refers to a poem in which the poet speaks in her own person, not as the impersonal poet or through a persona. Subjects and themes of confessional poetry are usually intensely personal, often disturbing, experiences and emotions. Poppies in July” has sources in Plath’s life, and its meaning is strongly implied by its place in a sequence of poems Plath wrote during a three-month period in the summer of 1962: “The Other,” “Words heard, by accident, over the phone,” “Poppies in July,” “Burning the Letters,” and “For a Fatherless Son. ” Sylvia Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963, by inhaling fumes from her gas stove. In her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (1963), published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas just before her death, Plath depicts the schizophrenic episode that preceded her first suicide attempt, when she was twenty.
Esther Greenwood, the heroine, imagines that a great bell jar has descended around her, enclosing her in an invisible and colorless barrier between herself and the world. She attempts to kill herself by taking sleeping pills. The bell jar parallels the “glass capsule” of “Poppies in July. ” Although the poem reflects events in Plath’s life, it transcends purely personal experience and stands on its own, communicating its meaning without the need for references to outside sources.
The poet speaks not only for herself but for all who have experienced the mental and emotional torment accompanying the infidelity of a partner in marriage. The speaker of the poem is alienated from life, represented by the blood-red poppies. When she transforms the image of the bloody mouth into the vaginal mouth implied by “bloody skirts,” she expresses an emotion close to revulsion for all of the blood of female experience—menstruation, loss of virginity, giving birth.
The image may also suggest rape; Plath hemorrhaged as the result of a date rape when she was a student at Smith College. When the poppies become flames, they represent sexual passion, which the speaker’s husband did not control and which she cannot feel. The alienation expressed through these images causes her to desire the oblivion represented by the opiates that can be derived from the poppy, “dulling” her senses and “stilling” her mind.
Most of the poems collected in Ariel, including a companion poem to “Poppies in July”—“Poppies in October”—were composed after “Poppies in July. ” In the companion poem, poppies are a “love gift/ Utterly unasked for,” representing the exhilaration of life. Poetry itself, for Plath, is “the blood jet,” as she expressed it in “Kindness. ” “This glass capsule” from “Poppies in July” can also represent the poem, as well as imply the detachment necessary for the poet to create art out of life.